On the evening of April 29 in Landskrona, Sweden, Maj Sjöwall died. That she died when she died is no surprise – she had been ill for quite a while – but, to those who admired her writing, Sjöwall’s death is deeply felt.
With her partner, Per Wahlöö, Sjöwall created a ten-volume series of mystery novels which significantly altered the genre. Sjöwall and Wahlöö met as journalists. Marxists, they were frustrated with their native Sweden’s failure to adapt socialism. Instead of a system that broke down barriers and promoted equality, Sjöwall and Wahlöö saw a state fully invested in bureaucratic centralization, one which rewarded the capitalists already on top and pushed common citizens away from governance. Instead of attacking this slide through journalism, the pair used fiction to document their disappointment.
The Martin Beck series – named after the main protagonist – focuses on a group of police detectives assigned – at times – to the National Murder Squad of the Swedish National Police. The novels start in 1965, the year Sweden nationalized its police force. While nationalization was intended to result in more effective policing, centralization meant that politicians were directly responsible for law enforcement. They put their own in leadership positions, often ignoring talent in the rank and file. Now policing meant high profile show campaigns, such as sweeps of drug users and a crackdown on political dissent, as well as mitigating crime and solving cases.
Starting with Rosanna (1965), each book in the series – set about a year apart – marks the transformation of Swedish society and the attitude of the cops the books center on. Lead actor is the anti-social, resigned Martin Beck is a lead homicide detective who eventual becomes the head of the Murder Squad. His best friend and partner, Lennart Kollberg is a socialist, former paratrooper, who feels intensely betrayed by the Swedish political state. Beck and Kollberg aren’t a ying/yang, nor are they Holmes and Watson. While both generally agree that their bosses suck, how they deal with the suckitude guides each in different directions (my vagueness is to avoid spoilage).
Other major characters include the impatient, class-war obsessed Gunvald Larsson and the uber-ambitious Benny Skacke, a young policeman who sees politics as a tool for advancement, albeit in a benign way. In contrast, Stig Malm, the head of the National Police is played as a know-nothing political appointee whose primary mission is pleasing his boss, the Prime Minister. Another contrast is Rhea Nielsen, a social worker and Beck’s eventual girlfriend. Nielsen serves as the mouthpiece for a small-scale, common sense, libertarian socialism. One of the other main female characters – police officer Åsa Torell – tracks the role women play (or did not play) in Swedish law enforcement.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s focus is not just on Swedish society and bureaucratization. The novels investigate sexism, sexual politics, police brutality, criminal justice, class, corruption, inequality, foreign intervention, espionage, surveillance, and the right-wing. In The Terrorists (1975) the final book in the series, the authors deal with terrorism by commenting on the apolitical cynicism of the terrorists without confusing the actors and the act with the political justification for the terrorism. Likewise, while Beck and his people work to foil a plot, their heroics are based on what they do in the moment, not that they are cops.
While the above description might suggest that the Beck novels are barely-concealed political tracts, they are anything but, and that one of the reasons why Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s series is held in such high esteem. The politics are there but never heavy, often spoken through the characters but always in language that everyday people use – and those everyday people include cops, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes just doing their job. Criminals are also nuanced and complex.
Because each novel takes place about a year apart, by “simply” describing things as they are in the moment, Sjöwall and Wahlöö use the passage of time to comment on political and sociological evolution of Sweden. The technique is so masterful it should be used in writing classes.
Not only is each Beck book meticulously plotted with excellent pacing and character development, Sjöwall and Wahlöö nail the police procedural, crime novel, detective story, whodunnit, and noir, often all in the same novel. The prime example of this fusion is The Laughing Policeman, wherein a cracked-man with a machine gun assaults a late-night bus, killing a handful of people including rookie police officer and Beck protégé Åke Stenström. The book won multiple awards. A movie of the same name, staring Walter Matteau, is considered a classic of noir cinema.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö worked together for ten years, producing ten novels and two kids. After plotting each novel, they’d spend evenings at the kitchen table sitting across from each other, working on their book. One day, they’d each write a chapter, long-hand. The next day, they’d take the other’s work from the day before, type it up and edit. They did this until the 1975 publication of The Terrorists. After the book was finished but prior to its publication, Per Wahlöö died.
After her partner’s death, Sjöwall refused many calls to continue or revive the series. She did so out of principle – she enjoyed collaborative writing – not because she was flush with cash. When Sjöwall and Wahlöö started their groundbreaking series, they were unknowns writing genre fiction. Like many writers of mysteries, science fiction, and westerns they were paid by the word and with small advances. Even after the Beck series took off, winning awards and international praise, the paydays were modest, including money from the many film and TV adaptations.
I’ve read the Beck series, in sequence, at least a dozen times. I often recommend it to others and when I do, I advise starting from the beginning. While Rosanna isn’t the best of the bunch, it is a very good crime/detective novel and an excellent debut. What follows is both intriguing and fun, a literary legacy that any writer should be proud of. Thank you Maj Sjöwall for your words.